Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Rating: ★★★

Such a bizarrely underperforming novel. Roughly 400 pages of the American Wallflower Story (Tragic Event Version), dotted with some annoying characters and very superficial trappings of academia, followed by a twisty ending that plays interestingly upon the uncertainty of an unreliable narrator. It takes some guts to wait that long before showing your hand as a writer, but I end up feeling a bit more annoyed than impressed.

Barring a few mystery hints, about the only thing keeping me going through the coming-of-age novel that is most of this story was the socially-observant tone underlying it all, from what is stated in Blue's assessment of her peers to Pessl's subtle demonstration of Dad's blowhard jerk nature. It's not something I see a lot of. The fantasies about Hannah never seemed compelling until very late, but the incongruent details were enough of a puzzle that Pessl's extravagant finish was entertaining to read (though I must except from this the rather overlong retelling of Blue's Nightwatchmen conspiracy-theory, given almost everyone who was going to get it must've got it by the point we were starting the long list of Internet forum citations).

A few of the reviews in the front pages of the book mark the book for being funny, but frankly I'm not sure what they're talking about. Blue's naivete and self-delusion is more sad than comic, and Pessl doesn't otherwise have an obvious lever for making people smile -- her quotations and citations are irritating noise, her dialogue plain. Pessl certainly writes well enough to keep her story going, and layering the details needed for the composition in the finale no doubt takes great skill, but I see no evidence that humour is one of her talents.

Taken as the light read it initially presents itself, Special Topics will probably kill the competition in the final heat. But if you're coming looking for something to dazzle, you'll have a lot to grit your teeth through before you find the reward, and I don't think it's quite enough to be worth it.